DrThomas Blom Hansen, a renowned scholar on Hindu nationalism, is currently Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, California, and Reliance Dhirubhai Ambani Chair at Stanford University. His research areas are anthropology of political life, ethno-religious identities, and violence and urban life in South Asia and southern Africa. He conducted extensive studies in India, which resulted in two books: The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton 1999), which explores the larger phenomenon of Hindu nationalism in the light of the dynamics of India’s democratic experience, and Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity of Post-colonial Bombay (Princeton 2001).
In a detailed Zoom interview, Dr Hansen spoke on the genesis, evolution and future of Hindu nationalism in India. Excerpts:
I think you put your finger well on Arya Samaj. If you look at the background of the members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), many of them began as members of the Arya Samaj. There are several other influences as well. The Arya Samaj was a Hindu reform movement that reacted to the influence of Christian missionaries in Punjab, and there was also the influence of the Census.
The Census that began in 1870s caused considerable ‘demographic anxiety’ among many upper-caste Hindus. The fear was that Muslims wanted to take over India with their demographic advantage. That idea was particularly influential in Bengal, where most of the landowners were Hindus and those who tilled the lands were predominantly Muslims.
The ‘demographic anxiety’ was clearly also informed by a ‘class anxiety’. That anxiety continues even after Partition and we see it manifest today in the strictures on intermarriage in many States, the campaigns against ‘love jehad’, and so on. In pre-Partition India, Muslims constituted around 40 per cent of the total population of the sub-continent. In Independent India the Muslim population is only 15 per cent, yet the ‘demographic anxiety’ is kept alive by the RSS and others.
Similarly, the Census also motivated political mobilisation among Muslims, including the formation of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which aimed at representing the interests of the Muslim community vis-a-vis the clear majority of Hindus in British India. However, Hindu nationalism as we know it today emerged from within a certain Brahmin milieu in Maharashtra that gave rise to early radical nationalists who assassinated colonial officials and also a hugely influential figure like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who promoted a new Hindu mass politics.
This was the milieu of the founders of the RSS and also V.D. Savarkar, who was deeply influenced by European ideas of cultural nationalism.
Savarkar was a big fan of the great Italian nationalist Mazzini, whose work he translated into Marathi. But unlike Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS was not overtly political in the beginning.
For many decades, and to this day, the RSS has been claiming to be a non-political organisation. It wants to organise Hindu society and overcome caste divisions by unifying against the common enemy—the Muslims. Although many people now trying to reverse-engineer history and claim that the RSS was a part of the nationalist movement, the fact is that they were never supportive of the Congress. In fact, there was a strong affinity between the colonial administrators and the RSS ideology of creating an elite corps of disciplined men in uniforms who can guide India.
In the British, early RSS men saw a small group of well-organised men who ran the country. Why else would the RSS design a uniform so similar to that of the colonial police? The RSS is a movement that seeks to strengthen Hindu society, giving it a central ideology and an idea of Hinduness that is not attached to any particular sect but reflects general upper-caste values.
It was only with the formation of the Jana Sangh that they got interested in electoral parliamentary politics. But for many decades, that was not a central part of their discourse or strategy.
The fear of Muslims and violent fantasies of revenge against historical Muslim dominance runs through the Hindu nationalist movement, from the beginning. However, the other driving force is a deep-seated fear of mass politics and democracy that could bring India’s real numerical majorities, such as the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Dalits, Muslims and the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.s), to the fore and threaten the social and cultural dominance of upper-caste Hindus.
The RSS is set up as an anti-democratic movement and is based on the decidedly upper-caste idea that an elite group of disciplined cadres can dominate and lead Hindu society. The RSS hated [Mahatma] Gandhi because he mobilised millions but on a programme that the RSS saw as too soft, effeminate and not securing forceful Hindu dominance.
It is only with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the 1980s and 1990s that the Hindu nationalists mastered the art of mass politics _ not a democratic one but a mass mobilisation based on intimidation of minorities and muscular majoritarianism. That is the only mass politics that RSS and its upper-caste leadership can control, a mass politics that is anti-democratic and contrary to the very spirit of India’s Constitution and democratic tradition.
Many of those who support the BJP—and that includes a large proportion of India’s educated middle classes—love the idea of Hindu pride and Hindu power. The same people often resent the idea of democracy and electoral politics, because it implies the rights of others—the poor and the minorities—to speak, be heard and be respected.
I agree that the first mobilisation began with the cow protection movement in the United Provinces. It was the first movement that tried to create a common cause among Hindus, and it was directed against Muslims. The cow is rich in symbolism: the mother, the milk giver and much more. The cow protection movement spread widely among upper-caste communities in north India and the reverberations of this are felt to this day.
Cow protection pits Hindus against Muslims since the general notion becomes that ‘Muslims eat beef whereas Hindus worship the cow’. Many of the stereotypes about Muslims being violent, bloodthirsty beef-eaters emerged more than a hundred years ago. However, in India, almost all the beef that is sold and eaten comes from buffaloes.
Cow protection also promotes the upper-caste idea that a Hindu essentially is a vegetarian, although there is no empirical evidence of this. In the early 20th century, British officials experimented with Census questions such as “Do you respect the Brahmin?” and “Do you eat beef?” It turned out that as many as 40 per cent of those classified as Hindus ate beef. This evidence created anger in upper-caste circles and it was soon retracted.
Savarkar’s argument is that Hinduism is not just a religion. It is many kinds of worship under the umbrella of Hindu civilisation, a shared Hindu culture that has multiple strands in it. That argument is still very much around and informed the whole critique of what the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used to call the ‘pseudo-secularism’ of the Congress. They would argue that because Hinduism is not an organised religion like Christianity and Islam, it is basically tolerant. They would argue that religious fanaticism is an invention by the Semitic religions coming fromWest Asia. That is part of the civilisational argument. Because Hindu culture is a civilisation, everybody who is born a Hindu or at least who is not part of the any of the so-called foreign religions can be part of Hindu culture, including Sikhs and Buddhists.
Savarkar asked: “Where is your holy land and where is your fatherland?” He suggested that for a Hindu, India is both a holy land and a fatherland. Savarkar was quite uninterested in Hindu worship and traditional Hindu philosophy. Many of his followers, including many RSS men, do not visit temples. They say they want India to be a homeland of all Indians but define Hindus very broadly.
The idea of India as a Hindu homeland also informs the recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Anyone who belongs to a religious minority in a neighbouring country, for example Bangladesh, is entitled to Indian citizenship but Muslims are not eligible. The CAA also reflects the older Hindu nationalist idea of the entire subcontinent as Akhand Bharat, or greater India.
I think it is both, but the two nation theory is often attributed to [Mohammed Ali] Jinnah or the people around the Pakistan, the Muslim League.
I think Ambedkar is right about that. Savarkar was the first to clearly raise the idea about the Hindu nation. The Muslim League was interested in protecting the interests of Muslims in India politically, but it was only in the 1930s that the idea of Pakistan was formulated by the Muslim League. There is a wonderful book by Faisal Devji titled Muslim Zion , in which he speaks about how the idea of Pakistan as a homeland for South Asian Muslims came into being.
In this line of thinking, every nation must have a homeland. The political turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s and the anxieties of the Muslim League led to the formulation of the two-nation theory as such expounded by Jinnah and others. So, in many ways the two-nation theory and Hindu nationalism are twins.
There was a suspicion among many Muslim League politicians and leaders that the Congress movement tacitly, but never explicitly, was a Hindu majoritarian force. Jinnah argued that Muslims and Hindus had different values, worship different gods, eat different foods, and have different ways of communion with one another. However, on the ground none of that was actually quite true, neither then nor now. But the Pakistan movement was driven by the hope that national sovereignty would afford Muslims protection, dignity and a new society.
It is very hard to say. I mean, in the short term they didn’t benefit because they were banned. Nehru and other Congress leaders said very strongly that the RSS was an Indian version of fascism. But the ban forced some rethinking. In the years of communal tension leading up to Partition, the RSS expanded fast and their militant attitude enjoyed some popularity.
The ban forced them into other things, including politics with the formation of the Jana Sangh, and they were grappling with how to translate their ideas into an Indian form of conservatism, if you like.
There were other formations, like the Swatantra Party, but the Congress was really hegemonic during those initial decades.
What could have happened if Gandhi had lived, how things have played out? It is pure speculation on my part but I think that Congress would not have gone strongly down the mode of central planning and the kind of five-year plans and Nehruvian economics that was implemented, because Gandhi was not in favour of it. Gandhi still had considerable authority within the Congress party at the time. So, with Gandhi out of the picture, a form of political polarisation took place.
Gandhi was culturally conservative and in some ways also socially conservative, but he was not a political conservative. With him out of the equation, a kind of polarisation between the left and right became clearer. Did that benefit the RSS in the long run? I find that hard to say. The big moment of reinvention was in the 1970s with the JP movement. JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] was one of Gandhi’s closest confidants, and in the 1970s and 1980s many talked about “Gandhian socialism”, including the Janata Party and even the BJP. No one really knew what it stood for, though.
As to the assassination of Gandhi, yes, there was ideological complicity between [Nathuram] Godse and the RSS, for sure, and there are all these attempts to rehabilitate Godse today. In the early 1990s, I met his brother, Gopal Godse, who had spent decades in prison. He was completely unrepentant and spent our entire meeting sharing the most outlandish conspiracy theories about Muslims.
Impact of the JP movement
Absolutely, I agree with that assessment. The JP movement and the Emergency that came after were a major watershed in the Indian political history. We have excellent new work on the Emergency from several scholars but the JP movement still awaits a more systematic investigation. Was the JP movement a right-wing movement or a left-wing movement? Well, it comprised both aspects. There were people who were more socially progressive, people who belonged to what we call socialist inspired by Lohia, and there were the Gandhians who were not easily defined on a Left/Right continuum.
Once the movement got going, the Jana Sangh and the RSS definitely provided networks, activists and organisational skills to the JP movement. I don’t think it could have grown to have the impact it had without the RSS. But can one say that the RSS drove that movement? I don’t think so. It was JP who led the movement. He was a very interesting and complex character and not easy to slot in. Many people say that he was a right-winger since he worked with the RSS. I am not sure. Gandhians have always been very difficult to classify in an ideological spectrum.
What is indisputable is that the movement impressed and energised millions of people and that forged a bond among the activists. Many older RSS men who had been imprisoned along with many other JP activists always said that this was how the idea of the Janata Party was born. The Janata Party was born in prison with those friendships and those alliances against Indira Gandhi and the hope of an alternative politics. It was an almost impossible mix of people: socialists, RSS men, those who are liberals and skeptical of the Congress’ economic policies, etc. Once they came to power in 1977 they couldn’t govern. They were ridden with solidly different constituencies.
Also read: ‘Democracy is largely a set of rituals now’
So, yes, in some ways it was the rebirth of a new right-wing movement in India, but it was a difficult one. During the 1980s, the BJP was formed and it got only two seats on a vague programme of Gandhian socialism. Enter L.K. Advani with the idea that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) can play a much bigger role, going for an overtly religious argument, when you are trying to recruit Hindu religious sentiments, in this case around the simmering issue of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Of course the Babri Masjid was well chosen as a symbol because it was already a complicated place that had religious importance and could also be made into a symbol of the historical conquest of India by Muslim rulers.
I think it is too simplistic to just call him right-wing. Similarly with Gandhi. Was Gandhi Right or Left? I don’t think that is easy to answer. Because Gandhi was many things and JP was also many things. Let us not forget how different the political equations were in the 1970s. This was a time when the main target of the Left was the Congress, denouncing their bourgeois and Indira Gandhi’s populist nationalism, their promotion of elite interests, and so on.
But historians, including Bipan Chandra, have authored some studies on this…
But he came from a particular political standpoint and I think that his [Bipan Chandra’s] analysis is too blunt. We don’t have a good book on that history which was a watershed period in the history of Independent India.
So the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was overtly recruiting sentiments around devotion to Ram. They were using the popular knowledge and myth to create the story involving Babur’s destruction of an existing temple, which by the way has never been proved by any serious archaeologists who have worked at the place.
The movement was playing on the idea of Muslim violation of a temple where Ram was supposedly born. Of course, Ram was only a mythological figure and not a historical one. But if you look at how they organised the campaign, from the shilanyas where bricks for the temple were brought from all over the country, and later the various yatras, the whole campaign was designed to show everybody that India as a geographical entity was defined by Hinduism and Hindu culture.
Advani’s yatra began in Somnath, supposedly the place of the first Muslim destruction of a temple, and then went across the country to Ayodhya. Another campaign called the Ekta Yatra was held in 1991: it began from Kanyakumari and went all the way to Srinagar. The last bit could not be done so Atal Bihari Vajpayee was flown to Srinagar using a helicopter. That too was all about invoking the geography of India as the symbol of the nation.
So, yes, it was about religion but was really about building Ayodhya as a symbolic sense of this new Hindu rashtra, invoking Hindutva as being based on the territory of India. I was in India at the time of the yatra and I remember them constantly displaying maps of the entire yatra. It was about religion but it was also mostly about nationalism. Was it a clever ploy that mobilised genuine feelings of ordinary Hindus and put them in service of a nationalist cause? Yes, of course it was.
Liberalisation & politics
As I have written about in my book, Saffron Wave , the first reaction from the BJP was a heavy criticism of those policies. Lots of people within the old guard of the RSS were very critical of this. They thought this would open the floodgates to Western consumerism and immorality, excessive Westernisation and so on. An RSS-sponsored organisation called the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch created by S. Gurumurthy promoted a modernised version of swadeshi to counter liberalisation. However, in the mid and late 1990s, the BJP began to change its tune.
But the initial reaction was sceptical. That is because the BJP was not, at that time, a classical right-wing party, say in the model of the Republican Party of the United States, which is all about free markets, individual wealth creation and so on. That’s not what a lot of RSS men believed in, and they are still not buying that idea.
These so-called ‘old-timers’ are not just sceptical of liberal values when it comes to family and culture. In the economic field too they are not happy with the excessive accumulation of wealth by a very small group of millionaires and with many BJP men becoming wealthy by staying in power.
The BJP changed its political tune in the 1990s. By 1998, when Vajpayee became the Prime Minister, it had completely taken over the Congress policies on liberalisation. It took about a decade to come around. There were people in the BJP, such as Pramod Mahajan, who were very pro-liberalisation and there was this joke at that time about the difference between kar sevaks for the temple and car sevaks for the good life. What liberalisation did to India in those years was that it created a sense of upheaval and rapid change, a lot of new things came in the 1990s. This meant new buildings, new ways of becoming rich, consumer culture, a generational gap between the young and old generation. That sense of a major changes and upheaval created the perfect environment for the BJP to go fishing for votes.
The BJP message that “we stand for Indian values” in the middle of all these changes created for it a conservative position that was both modern and forward-looking but also in tune with conventional Indian values. That proved attractive to many voters. So, in this indirect way, liberalisation enabled the BJP to come to power but not because it was their programme. It was the Congress’ programme.
No. I don’t think they have [one]. What they did under Vajpayee was essentially to continue to put in motion the policies brought in by the Congress. They didn’t change anything substantial. The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch was completely sidelined. Few people wanted to go back to a closed economy again. Liberalisation turned out to be very popular among the young and with the new middle class. The BJP wanted to win votes from the new middle class which had money, aspirations and ambitions.
Also read: ‘Modi shrank India’s workforce by a fifth’
So, what BJP stands for today on the economic front is really a hodge-podge of things. Look at the GST [Goods and Services Tax] Bill, that Bill was formulated by the UPA [United Progressive Alliance]; look at the farm Bills, it is not theirs. A lot of elements of those Bills were already in preparation and half-realised during the UPA regime. Lots of RSS men may not like reservations, but is the BJP going to tamper with the reservations? No, because they now have a solid support base among the OBCs and the Dalits in different parts of the country.
The BJP is today giving favours to other kinds of industry groups that were not much favoured during the Congress’ time. But if you look at the policy fundamentals of the economic policies, you cannot say that there is a distinct BJP policy. Maybe demonetisation is the only unique contribution of the BJP in the economic realm and the value of that whole process is very questionable in hindsight.
Demonetisation was a short-term success for [Narendra] Modi but in the long term it has not been shown to reduce corruption or clean up the economy.
A lot of people from the business community had high hopes when Modi come to power. In 2014 Modi said that he would accelerate liberalisation, that he would privatise many more things and deregulate many more things than the Congress had done. It turned out that they have not really done it.
Think about the financial sector and the non-performing assets. This was a problem already identified by the Congress party but the BJP has not yet acted on it decisively. I think that the Congress party is very much better in developing new policies and they have better technocrats than the BJP. There is no question about it. But it would not be accurate to say that the BJP is dismantling the welfare state and many of the schemes introduced by the UPA. No, actually the BJP is also writing a lot of checks to people, so to speak.
To stay in office the BJP has to respond to the expectations of a lot of people and over decades Indians have gotten used to asking for government assistance and more government programmes in many fields. The BJP is not changing that because it cannot.
If the Congress comes back to power I think there will be huge differences in educational policies, in cultural policy and policies of minorities.
But on policy fundamentals of investment, of deregulating certain sectors of the economy, privatisation and financial reforms I think the Congress will do the same. I remember when Arun Shourie quit the BJP government he complained that there was not much difference between BJP and the Congress. He said the BJP is just ‘Congress plus cow’.
I think the fundraising [done] abroad is phenomenally important. Think of what Modi did in the first two years in power. He would attend rousing celebrations of him in New York and he would come to my neighbourhood here in Silicon Valley, he went to the Gulf, to London, Canada, Australia. These were fund-raising trips abroad. He went to the place where the largest concentration of wealthy NRIs [non-resident Indians] is present. They are also very keen in lobbying for India and Hindutva in their own countries. Most NRIs vote for the Democratic Party in the U.S. but many also support the BJP financially and politically in India.
The tasks before the Left
I think the Left in India may need to have some rethinking. You belong to a place, Kerala, where the Left is reaping success because it has created the best public health system and the best public administration in India. On the whole I think there is a realignment of political forces in India. The caste politics which began in the 1980s did not bring about lasting institutional changes. Mayawati’s BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] had shown great promise but they were more vested in symbolic issues than they were in economic and institutional reforms.
Also read: For a new Left
So, even though the Left can play a decisive role in terms of showing examples of well-functioning welfare schemes and a less corrupt State administration, more needs to be done. The Left needs to align with other forces. I think there is a tense relationship between the Left and the Dalit movement, which is growing ever more powerful in India. I think a lot of resistance to the BJP comes from Dalits and Scheduled Tribes as well. But their relationship with the Left is not always a clear one. I think the other movements, the OBCs across the country will also have to be mobilised. But it is difficult. The Dalits, S.T.s, Muslims and OBCs comprise the majority population in many States and they suffer the most under the BJP regime. These forces have to be mobilised.
The Congress’ role
Absolutely. Congress is the only opposition party with a presence all over the country. I think the Congress has a role to play but they should find a programme that is distinct from the BJP. The main problem is that the BJP has taken over the economic policies of the Congress, so the challenge of the Congress is to find a distinct programme from that of the BJP.
There is so much unaccountable violence across the country, and the BJP is misusing the police force against opponents. One does not have to spend much time with Muslims, Dalits or other lower-caste communities to realise that for these communities, the police is seen as a real and permanent threat of violence and deep injustice. Yet, no one talks about reform of the police and the courts as a top priority.
If I was a Congress politician I would put police reforms and court reforms topmost on my agenda, to re-establish the rule of law in the country. Most ordinary Indians love their freedom of speech and movement, they love democracy, the Constitution, the promise of due process and justice. Many elite Indians do not love any of these things and they spend all their time subverting those ideals to serve their own clannish interests. That contradiction should be the angle of the opposition.
I am full of admiration for their tenacity. The CAA protests in 2019/20 and now the farmers’ protest, these are what help Indian democracy survive. Something has to happen in the country in terms of the rural economy but the farm Bill was skewed in favor of big business interests. Now the BJP has to come up with a better policy since the farmers won the agitation. Good policymaking has to get down to the details, how a policy is going to work in the ground.
I don’t see evidence that the BJP has figured out how to craft and implement good, workable policies. A lot of ideology and image projection cannot substitute for governance, and without governance one cannot stay in power. I think this is a moment where the Modi regime has suffered damage from the handling of COVID-19, the CAA and the farmers’ protests. The spell of Modi has been broken. People are no longer afraid of criticising the government and that is a good thing. I always admired ordinary Indians for their courage and willingness to stand up to power and injustice. That spirit is back and it bodes well for the country.
I think Hindu nationalism as a sentiment and as an ideology is to going stay in India for a very long time. But I also think India is too big a country with all its complexity that the BJP in its current highly centralised form will prevail.
The BJP is dreaming to rule like the Congress party, uninterrupted for 50 years. That is their dream. However, that is highly unlikely. Other political configurations will emerge, some based on elements of Hindu nationalism no doubt, others on the many highly developed regional political identities.
I think Hindu nationalism will be significant in India for a long time, both as a political sentiment and as cultural values. They have changed curricula in schools, placed people in various power centres, in the bureaucracy and much more. That will have a long-term impact. But their dream of governing India in a centralised way in accordance with a uniform set of upper-caste Hindu values and norms is just that. A dream. Real Indians, and the sheer complexity of the country’s communities and expectations, will get in the way. Just wait and see.
The most dangerous game played by the RSS and the BJP is the attempt at pushing India’s Muslims even further against the wall, so to speak. One cannot do that to almost 200 million people forever without some consequence. Muslims in India—and this is a large and very diverse category of communities—are today poorer, less educated, more marginalised from the economy and less politically represented in the Lok Sabha and in the States than at any point since Independence.
I am full of admiration for the calm and stoic dignity that the vast majority of Muslims retain in the face on the unrelenting onslaught on their rights and livelihoods. But it also heartbreaking and simply cruel to watch. India’s Muslims have little political voice except for AIMIM [All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen] and a few other parties. Yet, it is disheartening, to say the least, to see how afraid many of the opposition parties are of openly defending the rights of Muslims, and instead invoke a nostalgic discourse of secularism, which feels a bit tired by now.
Mamata Banerjee may be the only exception here and she deserves credit for that. India’s Muslims deserve a better and bolder leadership that can address not just the religious values of Muslims but also the problems of deep poverty and marginality, of social segregation, victimisation by the police, gender disparities, and deep divisions along lines of caste and sect. But such innovation is difficult to achieve when surrounded by hostility on all sides.
Abhish K. Bose is a journalist based in Kerala.